‘People will listen to a grieving mother’: An Anchorage mom who lost her son to fentanyl wants to tell her story

Sandy Snodgrass wants to share how an astonishingly potent synthetic opioid swiftly took her son’s life, and how it can do the same to anyone who uses street drugs. People seem willing to listen. “If you want to say I’m obsessed, I’m obsessed,” she said.

Sandy Snodgrass wakes early, in the quiet East Anchorage townhouse she shares with two cats. She waits until dawn, then makes cold calls and fires off emails to television stations, newspaper editors, legislative staffers and anybody else she can think of — offering to tell the story of the worst thing that’s ever happened to her.

When people call back, she recounts the details of the awful day in October when she learned her 22-year-old son Bruce had died of a fentanyl overdose.

Her reasoning is simple, though not everyone understands: “There’s nothing people will listen to like a mother who has lost her child,” she said, with a shrug.

Snodgrass, a blunt 59-year-old licensed counselor, says she was in shock for a few months after her son died in October. But something seized her — maybe it was the relentless overdoses she kept hearing about — and now grief has alchemized into action. She wants to tell the story of Robert Bruce Snodgrass, how an astonishingly potent synthetic opioid swiftly took his life, and how it can do the same to anyone who uses street drugs. People seem willing to listen. In the past week alone, she’s done four media interviews. She has the ear of a U.S. senator.

“If you want to say I’m obsessed, I’m obsessed,” said Snodgrass, sitting on an easy chair not far from where she keeps the blue velvet bag that holds Bruce’s ashes. Wondering what other people think of her is not high on her list.

“Bruce is dead. So I don’t really give a s--t.”

Exploding overdose cases

Just like the rest of the United States, Alaska is being ravaged by fentanyl.

Across the country, fentanyl has grown into a national health crisis some experts see as the third wave of the opioid epidemic. Deaths due to the synthetic opioid surged 55% between 2020 and 2021, driving an overall spike in opioid deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In recent weeks, fentanyl deaths have dominated headlines in every corner of the country: Two high school students in Portland within 24 hours of each other. A 12-year-old in New Jersey. Five young people who overdosed together in a Colorado apartment.

In Alaska, the numbers are staggering: In 2018, there were nine fatal fentanyl-involved overdoses in the state. By 2021, there were 140, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Health and Social Services. That’s a more than 15-fold increase.

Overdoses involving fentanyl accounted for about 74% of all fatal opioid overdoses last year.

And it’s still unfolding. Toxicology screenings from 2022 deaths have not been finalized, said medical examiner Gary Zientek. But experts expect the carnage to continue.

“It’s gotten bad,” said Jessica Filley, an epidemiology specialist with the state Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention. “We keep hearing about bad batches of methamphetamine, heroin and even pills,” she said.

[‘Lethal batch’ of heroin has caused at least 6 deaths in Mat-Su, according to Alaska State Troopers]

Fentanyl gets to Alaskans in two ways: Either sold as pills or in another pure form, or adulterated into batches of illicit street drugs ranging from counterfeit prescription pills to meth to heroin. Dealers add it to drugs because it’s cheap and it produces a strong high. Whether people know they are consuming fentanyl or not, it can kill quickly. The DEA has launched a “one pill can kill” campaign to warn against it.

“It just takes such a small amount,” said Michael Troster, a former DEA agent who is now the head of the Alaska High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area coalition, a program that coordinates law enforcement agencies to reduce drug trafficking and production. Less than 0.2 of a gram can kill a person.

There are signs that fentanyl deaths show no sign of slowing down. In the past month, six people have died and at least 17 overdosed in the Mat-Su north of Anchorage from what police called a “bad batch” of heroin. While definitive toxicology tests will take months, fentanyl contamination is a potential factor, according to Troster.

It’s not just Alaska cities grappling with fentanyl. In January, the City of Togiak declared a public health emergency in part over fentanyl-laced heroin that killed at least one young person, as well as a particularly deadly batch of homebrew circulating in the dry village of about 800 people, on Bristol Bay in Western Alaska. People have gotten fed up with the deaths and overdoses, said Tom Lowe, the mayor of Togiak.

Fentanyl is “like Russian roulette,” he said.

A partnership

Snodgrass has formed an unlikely partnership — and friendship — with Troster. He was one of the people Snodgrass first cold-called, with nothing to offer but her story. Since then, they’ve done interviews in tandem as well as behind-the-scenes coordinating with groups like the Mat-Su Opioid Task Force.

They’re a professional odd couple: A buttoned-up 30-year career DEA agent and a mom who admits she’d like revenge on the dealer who sold her son drugs. When Snodgrass muses about her habit of driving past the houses of drug dealers late at night, Troster gently sighs.

“Please don’t say that on the record,” he says.

But they work well together. Her goal is to see federal legislation mandating education on fentanyl. She has been speaking with the staff of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski about that goal. She wants people to listen to what Troster has been repeating: Fentanyl is different.

Troster wants people to know that fentanyl has “changed the game” with drugs. It can be in anything, whether you know it or not. Any prescription pill not doled out in a professional, medical setting should be seen as suspect. If you hold five pills in your hand, two are probably adulterated with fentanyl, he said.

“If you’re not getting medicine from a clinician, a pharmacist, a doctor, a nurse practitioner, whoever it is, you can’t trust it at all, ever,” he said.

‘Alaska was Bruce’s true home’

Bruce was Sandy’s only child. When he was young they lived in Southern California, exploring beaches, mountains and deserts so Bruce could do what he loved — be outside. When he was a teenager, they moved back to Alaska, where Sandy grew up.

“Alaska was Bruce’s true home,” she said.

But while a student at Service High School, Bruce started using drugs in earnest. A longtime mental health clinician herself, Snodgrass thought he might be better off switching schools. At a new school, he and friends sneaked away to an empty house to drink.

Bright spots involved time in the wilderness. He spent a happy summer packing out meat for hunters at a lodge near Talkeetna. He earned a wilderness first responder certification on a monthlong National Outdoor Leadership School course. He loved free solo rock climbing. For a time, he worked at the Alaska Rock Gym in Anchorage.

Addiction derailed plans. After he turned 18, he was repeatedly arrested and then broke his terms of release, adding charges and time to his cases. Eventually, when he was using, he ended up camping in the forests of Far North Bicentennial Park, homeless but with a home he could have gone to, if he’d been clean and sober.

In summer 2021, Snodgrass felt reason for hope: Bruce said he wanted to get clean, and in part because of her knowledge of Alaska’s substance abuse treatment system, the stars aligned.

Snodgrass was able to help her son secure an immediate bed in a medical detox facility and then transfer to the inpatient Chanlyut program, run by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council. Bruce graduated, moved home with his mom and embarked on outpatient treatment.

The substance abuse treatment program gave him a mountain bike, and he found joy riding around Anchorage trails. His daily schedule revolved around intensive outpatient meetings and counseling.

Then came the day in October when Bruce left, saying he was going for a bike ride. Snodgrass knew the dangers. She knew that relapse can be part of an eventual path to long-term recovery, especially for young people.

“Be careful out there,” she told him.

According to police, Bruce was found dead at 11:38 a.m. Oct. 28, in the Carrs parking lot on DeBarr Road. A dog walker had noticed his body and called police. The police officer who met Sandy at the location where the body was found had come from notifying a different family about an overdose death.

“I recognize I’m not alone in this, by any means,” she said.

A few days later, Snodgrass drove to a gas station on DeBarr Road.

“So, where’s the guy that used to hang out here?” she asked a cluster of men. She knew her son had come here for drugs in the past. “I heard he died.”

She talked her way in to hearing who had been selling her son drugs. It’s hard to sleep with that knowledge. Snodgrass says she isn’t about to do anything illegal. Not that she hasn’t thought about it.

‘I’ll cry later’

For now, Snodgrass has decided that telling the story is what she does. As full-time as possible. She imagines that if Bruce had lived, he might have ended up working as a wilderness guide. Or maturing into a person living happily off the grid somewhere outside Talkeetna. She’ll never know.

Instead Snodgrass wakes up, makes her calls, sends her emails and puts on makeup for the next TV appearance. Makeup helps discourage crying on camera, and that’s one thing that sets her apart from some of the other “fentanyl moms” — her term for fellow parents who’ve lost kids to the drug. She can usually get through her story without breaking down. It’s a vehicle to get her where she’s going: some law, some warning, something that will halt the accumulation of deaths.

If a grieving mother can’t make people listen, who can?

“I’ll cry later,” she said.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at mtheriault@adn.com.